Ski resorts tackle unseasonable warmth

Bartlett’s Villa Olivia resort plans to open its hills to skiers on Friday, but on the outset of another warm winter, managers are already sensing a trend becoming familiar in the Midwest’s ski industry.

The Chicago area had an unusually warm winter last year — the 14th warmest on record going back to 1872 — and the season seems to be headed in a similar direction this year. Every day of December so far has seen average temperatures warmer than the region’s climatological normal for the day.

While these mild winter temperatures can present agricultural and ecological concerns in the long term, they also affect businesses like ski resorts in a more immediate sense.

As staff at Villa Olivia struggle to get the hills ready before Friday, Kevin Aulisio, the resort’s golf and winter sports operations manager, said temperatures just haven’t been cool enough to make snow.

“It doesn't look like it’s going to happen. We're able to make snow today, we might be able to make some snow tomorrow, but that's not going to be enough to cover everything we need to cover,” Aulisio said Monday.

Villa Olivia is typically open for winter sports Thursday through Sunday, except between Christmas and New Year’s, when it’s open all week with the hopes of drawing in people who are off school. Despite the chillier start to this week, mild temperatures are forecasted to return Wednesday, making Villa Olivia’s winter break opening unlikely.

Aulisio said the resort has faced similar challenges with unseasonable December warmth in the past.

“It does seem to be the idea that we're kind of pushing (opening day) a little bit further back, because we’re not getting those cold, early December temps that we used to,” he said.

Just north of the Illinois border, another ski area is also having a slow start to the season. Wilmot Mountain, which sports eight lifts and 25 trails, opened the first weekend of the month but had to pause operations the following Saturday after a bout of rain melted the snow.

“Historically, we open either late November or early December. It's always weather dependent,” general manager Chuck Randles said. “Last year, we were able to open on the early side of our typical window, and that was due to some great snowmaking temperatures in mid-November. Just like this year, we did have some weather-related closures in early December.”

Wilmot reopened last weekend, operating two chair lifts and eight total runs. The resort again paused operations this week to take advantage of the snowmaking temperatures.

“We focus on what we can control, which is maintaining our equipment and leading our team to be ready to make the very best of the weather conditions that we have to work with,” Randles said. “I'm super proud of the team for having done that in another challenging early season.”

With warmer than normal temperatures on the horizon for the rest of the month — and possibly the rest of the season — the unseasonable weather can be chalked up to a number of large scale atmospheric patterns, National Weather Service meteorologist Kevin Doom said.

Three patterns could be at play: El Nino year, the jet stream and climate change. The latter is particularly hard for meteorologists to pinpoint.

“It’s pretty much impossible to tie any one single event or really any one single season to climate change, because when we think of climate, we think of weather over such a long period of time,” Doom said. “When when we're talking a winter like this, the fact that it's unseasonably mild is probably more due to the fact that we have an El Nino year, or just natural fluctuations in our seasons and our weather patterns.”

While climate change can certainly be tied to the overall trend of warming winters, it remains difficult to tie this particular winter with the long term phenomenon.

Though meteorologists are predicting a warmer than normal season, Doom advised that predictions don’t necessarily mean we won’t see a snowy New Year’s Eve or a cold snap in February.

“I would advise people to not let their guard down just yet. We're still very early in winter and things can change pretty quickly here,” Doom said. “Even though it's looking to be overall sort of milder than normal for the rest of the season, we will of course still see those cold snaps and will of course still see snow.”

Randles, who grew up skiing in the area, added that no matter the weather, “the Midwest skier is the passionate skier.”

“The Midwest skier will come out and enjoy skiing whether it’s a Midwest powder day all the way down to a rainy day or bluebird day when the sun is out and the air is crisp and cold,” he said.

• Jenny Whidden, is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

Snow machines at Villa Olivia on Friday, Dec. 15, in Bartlett. The resort plans to fire the machines up again this week. (Brian Hill/ BrianHill
Villa Olivia on Friday, Dec. 15, in Bartlett. This year appears to be ready to follow a recent trend of mild winters that results in fluctuating schedules at ski resorts, as they monitor opening dates and manage snow-making opportunities. (Brian Hill/ BrianHill
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